Avalanche Airbags vs. Avalanche Education?

In From the Range of Light & Fast by Howie Schwartz33 Comments

This fall I went to the first annual California Avalanche Workshop in South Lake Tahoe, California. CaliAviWorkshop_poster-copy-jpeg-479x620It was a nicely run event with great turnout and some interesting presentations. For me, one of the more memorable ones was a session by Elyse Saugstad. Elyse is a professional skier and an incredible ski athlete. She has been in numerous films and is a competitive freeskier in competitions. But the reason she is perhaps most famous is that she was one of the survivors of the avalanche accident at Tunnel Creek in February 2012 that killed 3 of her companions. This accident made big news and was well documented in a Pulitzer-prize winning multi-media article in the New York Times entitled Snow Fall: The Avalanche At Tunnel Creek by John Branch.

Elyse’s talk started with a description of her experience being caught in that avalanche and the aftermath. It was very moving and steeped in the emotion of a tough memory. I admire her courage to expose herself in that way for the benefit and education of others. After the account there was a Q & A session where she commented that: (paraphrased) avalanche airbag packs are more valuable for saving lives than avalanche education. 

I realize it is an absurd notion – that one must choose one or the other when one can clearly choose both – but nevertheless, as an avalanche educator and curriculum developer for almost 20 years the statement caught my attention. We will never know if Elyse would have survived without an avalanche airbag pack, but the case is strong that it played a very important role in her survival. She was buried less deeply than her more unfortunate companions, in the exact same area of the slide. She was the only one with an airbag and the only one that survived. The airbag deployed and the technology worked as it was designed. Several members of her group, including ones that were killed, were educated in avalanche awareness. She rationally argued that their education did not keep them from dying in an avalanche, but an airbag may have saved them as it had saved her.

She may be right. But consider one of the other interesting presentations at the very same conference by Alex Do. He recounted his story from an avalanche accident that killed his friend in the backcountry just outside the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on the terrain known as Pucker Face. He reflected on the lessons he learned, which are also laid out in an article he wrote in The Avalanche Review, a publication of the American Avalanche Association, on pages 20-22. You will notice that among the lessons, there is no mention of the use or non-use of an avalanche airbag pack. All of the analysis is focused on decision making processes and systems that can prevent avalanche accidents in the first place. He repeatedly references his AIARE avalanche education and using the AIARE tools to prevent poor decision making. Alex’s article directly compares his accident to the Tunnel Creek accident, and states:

When I first read about the Tunnel Creek accident in 2012, I noted the large group size, poor communication, lack of group leader, disregard for the forecasted hazard, and complacency with the area. But I didn’t feel the need to actively institutionalize countermeasures against those key factors; I never participated in large groups or toured lift-accessed sidecountry – until I changed the equation by traveling to a new area and skiing with new partners in a relatively large group.

Alex dissected the details of events meticulously, in part as a way of coping with his grief and reconciling the past in order to move forward with a clean slate. Elyse was thankful she had an airbag pack and recommended that others use one. Check out this video of her being interviewed 24 hours after the accident on the Today show. At the end, Savannah Guthrie points out the avalanche danger was rated as HIGH in the public advisory and asks if she and her group had sufficient warning. Her response:

When we went out that morning the avalanche danger wasn’t at HIGH… [blogger’s note: it had in fact been just downrated to CONSIDERABLE from by the local avalanche center after being rated HIGH for two days] and so all of the signs that led up to us being there were signs that we felt comfortable and safe being there. All of us were experienced backcountry skiers. We felt that we were in the right place.

It is clear in retrospect that the group was not in the right place. It is also clear that the signs that made them feel comfortable and safe were ultimately irrelevant. Her perspective left me to wonder in what conditions and circumstances she would not have made that decision on that day. The contrast between these two presentations was so incredibly stark that it took me weeks to process what I had witnessed in the same room on the same day. Two survivors of two similar fatal avalanche accidents, with completely different educational messages.

 

Avalanche airbag packs are incredibly effective at what they do. Using the principles of physics, specifically the law of inverse segregation or “Brazil-nut effect” it makes a person’s surface area large enough that avalanche debris sinks relative to the person and they”float” toward the surface. The are the only device that has the potential to limit the depth of burial of an avalanche victim and “the most efficient means of preventing avalanche fatalities is to avoid complete burial” [Brugger & Falk, 2002]. Increasing numbers of cases from the real world are showing that airbag packs do probably save lives.

 

 

That said, could they be so good that formal education and training may soon be considered an inferior or secondary measure for decreasing backcountry avalanche risk?

 

Consider the recent article by Pascal Haegli, et al on the effectiveness of avalanche airbags in the September 2014 issue of The Avalanche Review. In the article he summarizes findings from his recent study. This study is a great addition to the conversation and reveals some interesting facts:

  • That statistically, airbags reduce the risk of dying, if seriously involved in a destructive size 2 or larger avalanche, from 22% to 11%. An important caveat is that the airbag must be inflated.
  • Statistically, the non-inflation rate of an airbag from causes ranging from inability to deploy, to technological failure, to puncture, and everything else in between is 20%. That means if you are one of the fortunate 11% wearing an airbag that could be saved, 1 out of 5 times you will unfortunately die anyway due to non-inflation. By the way, 60% of non-inflations are from user deployment failure.

To reduce bias, the data used for the statistical analysis in this study is based on size 2 avalanches or greater with multiple people and both airbag users and non-users involved. This means the data set is severely limited, and biased in other ways. We do not know the precise effects of this on the numbers reported in the study. There are a number of other potential variables that might affect the veracity of these stats:

  • Limited data – Last week, pro skier Chris Bentchetler and his wife, pro rider Kimmy Fasani, attended an AIARE 1 refresher avalanche course with me.
    Chris Benchetler on an AIARE 1 Refresher Course

    Chris Benchetler on an AIARE 1 Refresher Course

    Chris was telling me that he triggered an avalanche and was able to deploy his airbag. He was glad to tell me that he managed to ski out of the slide but was dismayed to see that his airbag had only partially inflated. Interesting story. Such scenarios probably happen more and more and, like this one, never get formally reported anywhere. The statistics do not account for this reality.

  • The statistics also are from the Alps (Switzerland and Austria) in open terrain and may underestimate the likelihood of puncture when being carried down through trees, common features in North American backcountry terrain.
  • Haegli, et al point out that airbag pack use has factors that make it highly susceptible to “risk compensation,” an effect of increased risk taking due to the use of a risk mitigation device.
  • One could argue that the added weight of an airbag pack leads to slower or less efficient travel. Added fatigue can affect decision making adversely. Slower travel can lead to increased risk exposure.

The 11% number is looking a little sketchy now isn’t it? And frankly, 11% is still a hell of a lot of probability. According to the US Department of Transportation, of all reported car accidents in the US only 0.5% included fatalities in 2010. Way better survival odds to crash your car than get caught in a D2 or greater avalanche, with or without an airbag. Clearly airbags are not enough. Although most experts would agree avalanche airbags are one of the most valuable safety technologies ever created for backcountry recreationists, they are not a magic bullet. How would it affect your backcountry decisions with an airbag on if you thought it was?

Choosing an airbag pack instead of an avalanche course would be a little bit like choosing to free solo rock climb with a freeBASE rig instead of learning how to free solo climb safely and securely. The modern technology is so easy to obtain, but it will likely never replace the hard-earned judgement that comes from education and experience. An avalanche airbag pack is a valuable addition to a safety system that works if used properly, if it deploys, if it stays inflated, if trauma is not too severe, if you are not hit by the avalanche from above, if you are not buried in a terrain trap, if the avalanche is not too large, and so on. Not all that confidence inspiring really, but on the other hand, statistically you are twice as likely to survive if you are caught and you are wearing an inflated airbag. That is worth a lot, but maybe not as much as understanding how to avoid avalanches in the first place. Let’s embrace our new tools but not give them more credence than they deserve out of laziness or a longing for them to be something that they are not. I’ll be quite happy if an avalanche airbag pack never saves my life in the backcountry. Not because I won’t be wearing one, or because it malfunctions, or because I can’t pull the cord, or because it tears apart. I just want to avoid getting caught in that kind of avalanche. I personally possess both an airbag pack and an avalanche education. I can tell you the latter is the only one that I never leave home without, deploys whenever I want it to, lasts a lifetime of backcountry outings, and is virtually weightless.

Comments

  1. Kirk Bachman, I agree with your comment that “Considerable” danger on the scale “is certainly not a green light to move into large avalanche-prone terrain features.” I think this needs to be explored further.

    I think that the avalanche risk scale, as it is composed presently, may be a significant contributor to these incidents and may in fact represent one of the hueristic traps that avalanche education tries to teach us to avoid.

    Ms. Saugstad said right after Tunnel Creek “all of the signs that led up to us being there were signs that we felt comfortable and safe being there.”

    The signs said the risk was “Considerable” – the midpoint on a 5-point scale, so you’d think that with her considerable experience, she would be right to feel confident handling middle-of-the-scale danger.

    But the scale itself defines “Considerable” danger as “Natural avalanches possible, human triggered avalanches likely.” So how did she feel “comfortable and safe” in a situation where “human triggered avalanches likely” and it’s possible she could have just been standing somewhere doing nothing and the hill could have ripped on her on its own?

    I think it’s telling to say it like this: per the scale, the Tunnel Creek avalanche, which was triggered by a skier, was in fact a likely occurrence, yet a whole group of backcountry skiers with significant experience somehow felt safe in that situation. How could that be?

    I think that in part, the scale distorted the risk by making what is in fact very high risk situation seem like medium, manageable risk by placing that level of risk on the middle of the scale.

    I also also note that the differences between Extreme and High on the scale are basically meaningless to a backcountry traveler. They both mean you are probably toast if you are out there.

    Therefore I think the scale should be adjusted to better address the actual risks it is communicating, and also to address what we are learning about backcountry decision-making (i.e. experienced travelers feel comfort and safety in considerable danger situations where they probably should not).

    I propose something like combining the high and extreme ratings, and splitting the remaining ratings into two groups with similar color/language, so low and moderate communicate, “probably OK, but be smart and prepared” (as you should be for all backcountry travel), and considerable and high/extreme I communicate “you shouldn’t be out here.” Let the truly experienced evaluate whether they should be out in “you shouldn’t be out here” conditions, but don’t trick them into comfort in situations where human-triggered avalanches are likely.

    I would love to hear some other thoughts on this topic, thanks.

  2. You started a great discussion, Howie! I was astonished to read the assertions of the article as I could not believe Elyse would have made a statement like that. I commend the comments on listener bias as I believe it happens. Hard to be an objective listener, sometimes. I was fortunate to hear Edward LaChapelle speak and dress down his introducer by saying “the only people who are Avalanche experts are dead”. I commend the change in direction from snow science to decision making in Avy education and as I understand it, communication & decision making are a major thrust of the Safe As Avalanche Awareness classes that Elyse and her associates have done for the last three years. Lastly, you were to kind to Anonymous – I hope his(?) lust for credentials and expertise do not backfire.

  3. I also attended the Workshop in Tahoe, missed the airbag talk tho. From what I have seen neither attending a AIARE class nor an airbag is sufficient (check out all the high fives after the snowboarder got caught video, talk about negative reinforcement). The heuristics are failing (see Ian McCammon discussion) as they merely identify psychological human traps and do not help in identifying the physical risk. Ads in Ski Magazines proclaim beacons/probes/shovels/Airbags as “Safety Equipment” or ” when they are really just recovery tools. Also the continual drumbeat of repeated surviving close calls by the manufacturers gives the impression airbags are a panacea for skiers..The reference to “airbags save lives” is discounted in The Human Factor, Chapter 4: And Then it Bites, where a skier had a bag but was buried anyway (and again a second time???WTF) and would have died if not dug out, which was a nice series but seriously lacking in conclusive objectivity

    1) The problem with Education is you cannot tell (statistically speaking) how many it has saved (since someone may just say I am outta here), same with experience.

    2) AirBags on the other hand seem to be well documented via video or camera…and therefore get quite a few kudos

    So I would have to say that even with education and an airbag, without a reasonable amount of experience (whatever that is, and a nice touch of fear) people will continue to be at risk without really knowing it, as they may be relying on the class and bag…I am not saying both are not relevant I just think that experience is being left out. Even in a day tour I have a bit of Expedition Mentality where just getting hurt puts everyone at risk. Bear in mind the impact of even a small amount of snow and its ability to push a skier around (a slab 10’x10’x1′ that has water content in the area of 25% can weigh some 1000 lbs, more than enough to mash you up against a tree, rock or just bury you [Airbag or not] etc).

    Nice discussion likely will go on for some time…

  4. Very well laid out Howie, and like the thread of discussion.

    I think that more reflection on all the ‘human factor missteps’ made @ Tunnel Creek should be the primary take home. Glad to see airbag packs assist in survival as fortunate.
    The group dynamics of ‘high energy charging’ that day with the event, suggests more tour planning might have reduced (mitigated?) the urge of not fully considering consequences and terrain choices. Given the ‘current avalanche problem’ And “High” Danger rating though moving to “Considerable” it is certainly not a green light to move into large avalanche-prone terrain features, given the event.

    I am left thinking that what was at play that day was too many folks running on ‘high octane.’ Very large group in the terrain.

    Airbags shouldn’t support desire or acceptance of making riskier decisions. But maybe they do?

  5. Very well laid out Howie. I like your reasoning. I think that Elyse not relflecting on all the ‘human factor mis-steps’ made @ Tunnel Creek and downplaying the human dynamics of charging ahead that day, demonstrates that (falsely) it seems to be okay without fully considering consequences of terrain choices given the ‘current avalanche problem.’ And “High” Danger rating moving to “Considerable” is certaining not a green light to move into large avalanche-prone terrain features.

    What was at play that day was too many folks running on ‘high octane.’ Airbags are not license to make risky choices!!

  6. This is a good article but I’d be wary about attaching (paraphrased) quotes/notquotes to someone based on notes. That’s kind of a dangerous line, isn’t it?

    Either way, my first thought after reading the first two paragraphs was “She said what?” Apparently, Elyse didn’t say it but it definitely reads like that.

    Esteban brings up a good point – Elyse’s trajectory is probably the only real key factor in the airbag saving her life in a highly treed & steep funnel – one only has to look at the CAIC report for 2.12.13 in Bear Creek/Telluride to see that airbags aren’t infallible in trees. Then again, neither is avalanche education from an awareness classes or from AIARE.

    What IS infallible is avoiding the margin altogether because if you’re not the trigger, in unstable snow or in avalanche terrain the dragon isn’t gonna get you. You can buy all the gadgets and go to all the classes but if you’re into pushing the margin and making decisions based on gut feelings then you’re definitely risking the worst case scenario. Avalanche classes can go both ways – you either gain a healthy respect for the mountains or you use the knowledge to justify going closer to the margin. Same with an airbag which is a false sense of security.

    Good discussion, though!

  7. Author

    Great points Nick! Educators have recognized for many years that avalanche courses can have a similar undesirable effect on decision making as risk compensation from safety devices. Thanks for engaging in a discussion that will hopefully result in a better understanding of the limitations of our knowledge, tools, and techniques that we have come to rely upon.

    Anonymous, thanks for the acknowledgement and thoughtful points. Some good perspectives. I have to say, in a friendly way, that if Elyse and I have to be accountable for what we say publicly then you should too : ).

    Thanks for clarifying Dave. I removed the quote because I realized that I misrepresented it as a “quote”. It was the gist of what was said, but I’m sure I editorialized it, so I brought it back to a more general paraphrased point that you might think more accurately reflects what was said. I agree that our listening is biased, which is such an interesting and relevant part of how we make our decisions and our mistakes both out there and in here. It does seem from Elyse’s comments that she does not actually believe what you and I may have heard her say.

    I want to again make a point that I do not mean to disparage or misrepresent anyone here. These are the facts as I recall and interpret them. I am hoping that we can use the 2 accidents referenced as case studies to continue an active and ongoing discussion on decision making and equipment that can be used to save our lives and those of our friends. Let’s not judge anyone’s actions or decisions after the fact because we are all capable of doing outrageous and dangerous things in the pursuit of powder. If it is still too emotional to have a productive discussion, I can take this post down or edit it until the community is ready for it. But we ought to have it at some point don’t you think?

  8. Like others, I also appreciate the discussion here and hope that despite the disagreement and miscommunication, it can continue. As I said above, I was at the workshop. I don’t remember the quote about buying an airbag instead of a avy course, but I do remember feeling kind of shocked that my takeaway from Elyse’s talk was that the airbag was the answer. On the drive home I checked in on that with the other person I was ring with, and they had the same reaction. In hopes of furthering the discussion in a constructive way and after some good reflection that this discussion has spurred for me, I’ll admit that what i heard may have been affected by a confirmation bias given my concern as an avy educator about folks grabbing hold of the airbag as a silver bullet. So maybe human factors in play and communication challenges even off the snow and in the conference room.

  9. I’m curious as to what kind of training Elyse has in order to be teaching avalanche courses. Has she taken her AIARE Level 1 ITC?

    Just because peeps are pro skiers, doesn’t mean they are pro educators.

    1. According to the following: https://safeasclinics.wordpress.com/about/ an AIARE 1.

      She might not “formally instruct” – just “advocate” and appear at classes as a guest speaker. Perhaps Elyse can answer this and perhaps she has more training and the website just has not been updated.

  10. http://www.lawinenball.at/. http://www.skibartlett.com › … › Safety & Essentials
    £50.00 – ‎In stock
    This device ,whilst relatively unknown in the off piste community,seems to be a very useful compromise piece of kit,when coupled with a high level of awareness ,training,experience etc,etc.relatively light and cheap too . somewhat more fail safe than an airbag,puncture proof and less of a hassle if flying to resorts(gas cartridge issues). Ok ,I accept that the cas. Is not lifted near the surface,however the ball is far more likely to remain visible to rescuers after a secondary or powder slough after the main event, which would almost certainly obscure an air bag with a heavy human attatched to it. I think that this brilliant invention is definitely worthy of consideration if weight is an issue ,failure statistics of air bag systems and finally the cost factor are all factored in to off piste safety.get on a course and practice lots ,stay safe my friends.andy.wales.

  11. Just curious Elyse, Did you start logging hundreds and hundreds of hours organizing and putting on avalanche awareness clinics before, or after Tunnel Creek? Admirable your doing that. You should continue your own education in the process too if you haven’t.

    The industry will fail to recognize it nor will the mags, and media, but the Professionals and educators, who are not Pros , just professionals were screaming and crying what the industry considered wolf for years leading up to these wake up calls. Sales and equipment booms in the back country sector kept dollars distracting the reality. It’s a shame it took high profile skier accidents to wake everyone up and start listening to what folks like Howie had been preaching and working on for decades.

    Thanks Howie for all your hard work helping to build the modern Curriculum that Elyse now gets to share when she organizes Awareness Clinics.

    Also curious Elyse, How much Avalanche Training do you have? Courses, and years participated? Instructors even if you care to share? At the time of Tunnel Creek did you have prior Avi Training, and if so what? Howie has been in the game longer then you may know, and if you get around to it, you should finish off your education with him. Go for your Level III with him if you get a chance. Super solid in more ways then you may know.

    Another question, Were you given that airbag pack that “saved your life”, Or did you buy it? The only pros I knew wearing them at the time was because they were free and another sponsor to add to the list.

    At the time Airbag companies were giving those bags to Pros left and right, but really not putting them in the hands of the professionals. Most Professionals knew they could function just fine in the back country without them, but the gear companies targeted high profile pros to market their booming sales.

    After watching the NY Times piece

    You say based on the group size, Who am I to tell someone they can and can’t go. That right there is enough to show us that you are not an experienced expert backcountry skier, or whatever you were portrayed as by the media.

    Why is everyone Expert, Experienced Backcountry skiers. IMO , these are pros, not professionals, and their is a huge difference and although it’s changing a bit now, back then the industry didn’t care about it’s professionals or it’s educators, only it’s pros.

    The Powder cover a year later read “why do the worlds best skiers keep dying” I think what they meant to say is why do the worlds most high profile skiers keep dying and not the best.

    Further into the NY Times Piece, when they show the Head Cam Footage of the other group that went left. (Maybe the only good decision made that day, but still incredibly aggressive and very technical terrain to manage in a group given the stability of the day)

    When they arrive at the end of the run, and come upon the ski pole and the debris the person with the cam on goes into his back pack to find his transceiver. Unbelievable.

    So this highly trained group of educated, Back Country Experts finds that it’s ok to keep a transceiver in their pack. Furthermore searching with it without having it attached to their body at the bottom of who knows what else could come down?

    Doesn’t sound like the educated group the media has portrayed to the public.

  12. Perhaps I have this wrong, but I believe that Elyse was trying to emphasize that even very educated and experienced people screw up in avalanche terrain on a regular basis. It is in this sense that avalanche education can be said to be of limited value. When education lets you down the airbag may save the day. Obviously we are all in agreememnt that airbags in no way replace education and avoidance.

    The very useful point that the above discussion sheds light on is that it is easy to give the wrong impression when discussing topics like the relatve value of education, or of airbags, in simple terms. People tend to hear messages sellectively, so it is very easy to be misunderstood when making limited statements about complex topics in a public setting. I have been an avalanche educator for many years and am never certain that the words I use are heard in the sense I intend them to be understood in. I always need to check and see what people think I was saying. Dismayingly often the message turns out to have gone astray. Avalanches are one of those topics where seemingly simple concepts unravel into devilishly complex tangles when looked at too closely.

    What I hear Elyse saying is two different things about avalanche education, first that it is vital to educate yourself, second that education does not always keep people out of avalanches. These two ideas are not contradictory, but must always be presented together to express the truth about avalanche education.

    It is true that airbags may encourage us to take bigger risks, and this is bad, but avalanche education has the same reputation for lulling people into a false sense of security. Experience can make us complacent as well.

    It is a shame that Elyse’s overall message may have been misconstrued, or misunderstood, but this only makes Howie’s article all the more valuable. Without continually having this discussion over and over again we will all simply slip back into the comfortable ideas we want to believe, instead of being reminded of the stark truth about the limits of our knowledge, the failings of our technology, and the ease with which our messages as educators can be transformed in the ears of others.

  13. Author

    Elyse, I think we may have to agree to disagree about what was said and heard at the conference, and chalk it up to a miscommunication. I don’t want to get in too deep here because I respect you as an athlete and an ambassador for our great activity, and my purpose here is not to criticize you or your beliefs in any way. I hope that the larger message is not lost in the details of who said what. I think another point to bring up is that avalanche education can take many forms, all of which have value. Some focus more on the rescue side and others more on the decision making side. My very first avalanche course was scary “white death” footage followed by practice with beacons and probe lines. Modern course curriculum focuses more on decision making tools and processes, which I think is a wonderful leap forward. Although rescue is a critically important topic in avalanche education, I cringe just a little bit when I see disproportionate emphasis in a short format course given to it. It sounds like you may share the same view, and I think that is great.

    1. Spot on Howie! Love your professional response and over all professionalism in general!

  14. We need to get something straight that nobody discusses: the woman at tunnel creek survived because she had a much luckier trajection through the trees in the avalanche. Yes, her airbag helped her possibly be buried less shallowly after the lucky ride-but airbags would have not helped the others, their bodies were terribly traumatized by hitting trees on the way down. How she survived is a miracle for anyone familiar with that terrain. I think it’s important to raise this point rather than say the airbag was solely responsible for the save.

  15. Great read and comments–the growing popularity of backcountry touring in the past several years and the concern that some people might think the airbag pack can keep them safe in an avalanche without education is a worthy subject needing more publicity and discussion.

  16. I believe that my record of logging literally hundreds and hundreds of hours each winter organizing and putting on avalanche awareness clinics clearly disputes your misinterpretation that I would “dismiss education relative to the airbag pack.” By changing the quote to paraphrasing that I dismiss avalanche education over packs is still grossly inaccurate.

  17. Author

    Hey, thanks everyone commenting so far. Cody, sorry your comment was not deleted, it has to get approved by the spam filter. I fully agree that the two perspectives are complimentary. Nobody is right or wrong here. It’s really a hypothetical debate because nobody out there has zero education. We are all on the spectrum and you are right that no matter how much you know, it still comes down to a fallible decision. Airbag packs have an important place and they do save lives, as you know. I want to urge us all to remember that, and that they are also not the magic device we all wish they would be. I think you know that.

    Elyse, thanks for the clarification on your perspective. I don’t mean to make you a protagonist against education and I did not get that impression from your presentation at all. I commend the good work you have been doing with avalanche awareness, so thanks for that. I recall that was your primary purpose for being there at the conference and that is how you were billed. Regarding your quote, it was not verbatim, but was created from my notes made in the room at the time. I don’t know if the session was recorded by anyone to clarify what was said. I will replace the quote I used with a paraphrasing as I can’t be sure of the exact words you used. The message was clear that you are an advocate of avalanche airbag packs, and rightfully so. The commentary dismissing avalanche education relative to the airbag pack was what got my attention. I know at least a few others heard it the way I did. Maybe they can chime in one way or the other. I understand that miscommunication can happen and that messages can be misrepresented and misconstrued in public speaking. I appreciate you sharing your message here firsthand.

  18. Thanks for doing a post on reminding everyone that being educated in the mountains and using one’s head is the most important thing one can do in backcountry terrain. That being said, I’m not sure how you came up with a quote by me that states that I promote spending money on an avalanche backpack over education. You could not be further from the truth as I WOULD NEVER EVER say something like that as I am a huge proponent of education and using one’s head first and foremost as the packs are last ditch efforts to save one’s life when they have made human mistakes. Heck, I spend my entire month of December traveling around the West Coast with other pro female skiers putting on introductory level avalanche awareness and snow safety clinics. Why would I bother doing something like that if I had a message that airbag backpacks are more important than education?

    To help create an argument wherein you paint me as someone who seems reckless, you then use a quote from a tv interview of me that took place less than 12 hours after the traumatic avalanche while I was in complete shock. It takes time and very difficult self-reflection to be able to objectively look at an event like the one I was in to talk about what went wrong. Understandable that this could be misconstrued as you didn’t know the circumstances when watching the interview, but what you unfortunately fail to mention in this write up is the majority of the talk that I gave at the workshop goes over the painful details of what I believe we did wrong that fateful day – therein I implicitly implied that we were not in the right place at the right time – not the same as the interview you put up to support your argument.

    Furthermore, to help use me as a protagonist against education you failed to mention that when I rationalize the fact that my friends may still be alive if they were wearing the airbag packs even though they were educated is that I was going over arguments from people who are against promoting the use of the packs. My argument in its full context is that my friends were highly educated and very experienced backcountry skiers, however, being human got the best of us and we made mistakes that unfortunately led to four of us being caught in an avalanche. They may still be alive if they were wearing the packs. To further paint the picture of my argument I use this example to propose that there is no reason NOT to have an airbag backpack as a part of one’s safety kit alongside education, a transceiver, shovel and probe. By no means do the backpacks usurp education, but why not give yourself a better chance to live if you make an error?

    I ask you to take down the quote that “My airbag pack saved my life. If someone were to ask me which to spend their money on, an airbag pack or an avalanche course, I would absolutely recommend the airbag pack,” because this is not factual. Thank you.

  19. Very well written. Thanks. I was also at that workshop and had the same thoughts after those two presentations.

    I really like your closing remark, “I personally possess both an airbag pack and an avalanche education. I can tell you the latter is the only one that I never leave home without, deploys whenever I want it to, lasts a lifetime of backcountry outings, and is virtually weightless.”

  20. Great post Howie. Having been at the same workshop, I shared your same reaction to the discussions, and you’ve captured it well here. Thanks. This deserves wider circulation. Cheers!

  21. Why was this comment deleted?

    “Great article but I find it interesting that people are dissecting the promotion of airbags as some sort of alternative to avalanche education. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to people like my wife’s (Elyse) promotion of an airbag’s last ditch, life saving potential. She always implores the need for an education first. The fact is, the Tunnel Creek avalanche claimed the lives of many highly avalanche educated individuals, just similarly to Alex’s avy. But just like an airbag, an education is simply a tool that unless deployed properly, is not foolproof. People make mistakes, even the most cautious and educated ones, an airbag is there simply as a last ditch effort in case of an avalanche. An airbag is a tool to compliment at highly educated and experienced backcountry traveler, not as a substitute. I wear mine simply because if I fuck up, I have one last chance to help myself. I have personally never found myself take any additional risk simply because I have one. The fact is, I don’t want to get caught in a slide ever! With or without an airbag. The difference in the presentations to me truly shows how our avalanche education is changing to adapt not only the science of avalanches but the human factors that affect the decisions over the course of the day that create accidents. I take Alex and Elyse’s presentations as complimentary, not contradictory. “

  22. Fascinating and a good perspective. I feel slightly inadequate not having airbag packs (yet) but having taken courses and maintaining a focus on avoidance makes me feel a bit better.

  23. Dear Howie,

    Thanks for that summarization. Not sure about the US, but especially in the Austrian and German Alps there are quite a bunch of governmental-supported awareness workshops – which do a good job. Anyhow many instructors do not online enough that an airbag pack is only an additional safety tool – not safety by itself.

    THX again + BR,
    Marcus

  24. Great article but I find it interesting that people are dissecting the promotion of airbags as some sort of alternative to avalanche education. Nothing could be further from the truth when it comes to people like my wife’s (Elyse) promotion of an airbag’s last ditch, life saving potential. She always implores the need for an education first. The fact is, the Tunnel Creek avalanche claimed the lives of many highly avalanche educated individuals, just similarly to Alex’s avy. But just like an airbag, an education is simply a tool that unless deployed properly, is not foolproof. People make mistakes, even the most cautious and educated ones, an airbag is there simply as a last ditch effort in case of an avalanche. An airbag is a tool to compliment at highly educated and experienced backcountry traveler, not as a substitute. I wear mine simply because if I fuck up, I have one last chance to help myself. I have personally never found myself take any additional risk simply because I have one. The fact is, I don’t want to get caught in a slide ever! With or without an airbag. The difference in the presentations to me truly shows how our avalanche education is changing to adapt not only the science of avalanches but the human factors that affect the decisions over the course of the day that create accidents. I take Alex and Elyse’s presentations as complimentary, not contradictory.

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